February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.
January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.
A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.
A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).
October 31, 2018 – It’s autumn in Northwestern Indiana and the dynamic shades of orange and yellow have proven especially inspiring this year. But those changes to a landscape that is filled with that nostalgic fall delight also means that it is the season for the Sandhill crane southerly migration. A major stopover or staging area for the Eastern population of cranes is at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area and it is happening now. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Sandhill crane count, for 2018-19 at the Jasper-Pulaski FWA, the numbers have increased from the October 16th count of 2,067 to 4,591 for the Oct 23rd count. The Sandhill cranes will continue to arrive daily in large and small flocks from points north and will peak with many thousands resting and feeding in the area by mid-November. According to Audubon’s online ornithological summary the highest count for Sandhill cranes a Jasper-Pulaski FWA happened on November 26, 2002 with a count of 34,629. By the end of December the cranes will have moved south, mostly into Florida. Information for the best times and locations for viewing along with updated counts can be found at the Sandhill Cranes Fall Migration page of the Indiana DNR https://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm.
August 20, 2018 – Only a month from now the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox will signal the official change from those lazy days of summer to the cool nights and colorful days of inspiration, reflection and the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes. There are small numbers of Sandhill cranes in areas of Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana that have been here through the summer and a few pair of the great birds that have successfully nested. Soon though, there will be a big push from points north as much cooler temperatures become apparent in Canada and the Upper Midwest. The spectacular migration will fill the eyes and ears of the fortunate with the amazing sights and sounds of hundreds of southbound Sandhill cranes heading for their staging areas of the Midwest. The cranes will amass in flocks of thousands where they will spend their days feeding, resting and dancing over the next few months. A well known and wonderful place to view the concentrations of Sandhill cranes is a little over fifty miles east of Kankakee at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana. By late December, as winter tightens its’ grip, most of the Sandhill cranes will have continued south where food can easily be found in the unfrozen fields and marshes of a much more tolerant climate of the southern United States.
December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.
The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.
November 20, 2017 – The last count posted for Sandhill crane numbers at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area was November 14 showing 7,706. On Monday, numbers most certainly have grown with hundreds of new arrivals daily feeding and resting in the surrounding agricultural fields. Many hundreds can be seen at the Goose Pasture Viewing Area in the park. We are now in the peak viewing season for these noisy travelers with their unmistakable chorus of rattling and croaking sounds that fill the chilled November skies. I also spotted a juvenile and an adult Golden eagle patrolling the very windy skies Monday near the Goose Pasture. One photograph shows two adult Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble and the other photo shows a young Golden eagle with the bright white tail feathers and the distinct white parts under the wings, the adult Golden eagles being mostly dark.
March 2, 2017 – Concentrations of Sandhill Cranes dot the gentle sloping meadows along the waterways of the fallow winter fields in Northern Indiana. Many hundreds of these cranes can also be seen around wet spots of ponding water socializing and foraging for food in Jasper and Pulaski counties. The spring migration has began and the rattling and honking sounds of these travelers echoes today as it must have for thousands of years. The sudden increase in the volume of a dramatic chatter in the cranes vocalization draws the eye towards the jumping and bowing birds as their elegant dance is reaffirming life partners or a potential mate for the new generations of mature single birds. Throughout time the crane has had a place in myth and story telling, Native Americans tell stories emphasizing the slyness of the crane, others see the cranes as good luck or even a sign of fertility and death as part of the lore. To watch these cranes, with their beaks pointed straight up to the sky or heads and necks bent back or low to the ground the sudden twisting and twirling bodies and stamping feet with feathers spread out in their dance performance, one truly sees the borrowed from nature positions used in ballet or the stances used in martial arts or Yoga. Soon these birds will continue their trips to points north where another brooding season begins, nesting amongst the cattails and sedges with a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs. In late summer early fall the migration once again will bring the cranes back to Jasper and Pulaski counties where they will rest and feed with flocks that can grow to as much as 25,000. By early December they will have all headed farther south to a less hostile environment for the winter where the birds will enjoy food and rest until the days start to grow longer and the spring dance of the Sandhill Crane calls once more as the cycle continues.